In Waukesha, the magic isn’t gone just yet

November 6, 2012

When there’s unrelenting political bitterness all around, is there still a place for whoopee cushions?

Jeffrey Campbell, who’s owned The Joke Shop, a novelty and magic store in downtown Waukesha, for nearly four decades, thinks so. From his view behind the counter, he believes his fellow Wisconsinites could stand to lighten up a little.

Campbell has tried to keep politics out of his store — a tough feat in a place that has seen six statewide elections in nine months and battles that have often pitted neighbor against neighbor. There’s no radio on here. “Six political ads for every song you hear,” complained Campbell, a stocky 60-year-old who sports a short silver beard.

And if keeping politics at bay when it’s threatening to overtake everything seems impossible, Campbell is . . . well, a magician. He performs card tricks and pulls coins out of kids’ ears at birthday parties on the weekends.

Outside his store on West Main Street, many of the people who made their way to the polls were just as weary of the acrimony as Campbell.

Ramona Estrada, a forklift driver who voted for President Obama, said both Mitt Romney and Obama signs in her neighborhood were defaced with graffiti during the campaign. “That’s just sad,” she said. “I won’t miss all the bickering.”

For Campbell, who voted for Mitt Romney before opening his shop Tuesday morning, being in the joke business isn’t terribly funny these days. His customers have less money than they once did, he said, and it doesn’t help that he’s not exactly hawking butter and eggs.

“I sell everything you don’t need,” he said.

But serious times might just make what he’s offering essential.

On Tuesday, a customer came in with her granddaughter, Campbell recalled. She’d just been to cast her vote, and she was upset about the election, uncertain about the future.

Campbell made a balloon dog for the little girl, who lit up. That made her grandmother smile, too, he said, and for a second, she wasn’t thinking about all the political divisiveness.

Just then, the shop’s phone rang. Campbell answered but quickly hung up. It was another robo-call.

Emily Heil

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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